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Last weekend Aubrey and I made a road trip out to Escalante National Monument to explore the strange sandstone landscapes. It’s a bit of a drive, 9 hours one way, but we had the audiobook of The Martian to keep us entertained. It seemed like an especially appropriate choice for our long voyage to the land of red rock and sand. Our first destination was a spot I had been to five years ago. We hiked out through the sandstone landscape to find an area covered in Moqui Marbles – strange shiny black balls ranging in size from peas to avocados. The name comes from the Hopi word Moqui meaning “departed ones.” According to legend, spirits of the dead played with the marbles at night, leaving them on the sandstone to reassure the living that they were enjoying the afterlife.

The scientific explanation for their existence is equally interesting and inspiring. Long ago, portions of the rusty red navajo sandstone were pushed through pockets of oil and natural gas. These hydrocarbons dissolved the iron, stripping the sandstone of its color. When this solution encountered groundwater it oxidized, and the iron precipitated out, forming concretions around sand grains and other oddities. Over time, these tiny concretions attracted more iron precipitate, eventually forming the large avocado sized balls that can be found today. Surprisingly, much of this happened quite recently in geological time – the Escalante marbles range from 2-5 millions years old, and those found in Arizona are as young as 300,000 years.

Landscapes on Earth don’t get much more martian than this – similar kinds of balls were found on Mars (called Martian Blueberries, or Spherules) by the Opportunity rover back in 2004. There are, however, many ways for spherical rocks to form, and it is currently unclear if the Martian balls are the result of a meteor impact, or the same kind of water catalyzed concretion like that which formed the Moqui Marbles.

Click images for larger view!

Moqui Marbles, Escalante, Utah

Moqui's Playground : Prints Available

Moqui Marbles litter the sandstone landscape of Utah's Escalante National Monument.

Moqui Marbles, Escalante, Utah

Geodiversity : Prints Available

A diverse (natural) array of Moqui Marbles on the slickrock landscape of Utah's Escalante National Monument.

Moqui Marbles, Escalante, Utah

Moqui's Art : Prints Available

Moqui Marbles adorn a sandstone plateau in Utah's Escalante National Monument.

Unfortunately the weather forecast for the southwest became stormier and stormier, which meant that any roads that crossed major drainages were at risk of being washed out, and narrow canyons and gorges would could become unsafe to explore. Since we didn’t have the flexibility to hang out behind a washed out road for several days, we decided to play it safe and stayed above the flood zones. This led us to explore some sandstone plateaus I hadn’t visited before. After listening to the rain fall on the awning over our heads for several hours, the clouds parted and we took advantage of the moment to wander the landscape and enjoy the sunset.

Solitude, Slickrock, Escalante

Slickrock Solitude : Prints Available

A lonely tree clings to life in the vast sandstone desert of Utah's Escalante National Monument.

Slickrock Vista

Aubrey and I enjoy the last rays of sunshine on the slickrock landscape of Utah's Escalante National Monument.

Car Camping

When we're not out backpacking in the middle of nowhere, this is our home away from home.

With more rain to come, we made the tough decision to abandon our original plans for good, and headed east into Nevada. Shortly after passing through Cedar City we entered the biggest rain/hail/thunder storm I’ve ever encountered. Our visibility went from a mile to a meter in a matter of seconds. The deluge of rain and hail hit the car so hard that we could barely even hear the thunder striking the hills within a mile of us. Fortunately we were able to slow down without hitting anything, or getting hit, and made it to the other side of the storm cell safely.


A welcoming sign as we entered the Mojave desert in Nevada.

After entering Nevada, we left the freeway to explore some red rock pockets of the Mojave desert. We were welcomed by an ironic sign, perhaps placed there to keep uninformed desert wanderers away. We pushed on, and set up camp next to a fairyland of red rock sculptures. The storm raged on all around us, but this little desert valley seemed to be immune to lightning strikes as none came closer than 15 miles of us.

The following day we explored the area, finding hundreds of little sandstone alcoves and strange shapes. My favorite structures resembled tiny villages and castles. I imagine these tiny towns were once inhabited by little martian creatures that abandoned their own planet in favor of Earth. But, the rain was too much for those desert dwellers, and they’ve since perished, leaving behind their sandy homes to melt and crumble away.

Storm Camping

Lightning and thunder surrounded us as we cooked dinner at a safe distance.

Ancient Sandstone, Nevada, Sunset

Ancient Citadel : Prints Available

The eroded and crumbling remains of an ancient sandstone citadel bask under the brilliant light of a glorious Nevada sunset.

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5 Comments to “Ancient Civilizations ~ Escalante and Mojave”

  1. Beautiful set, Floris! Those moqui marble images are fascinating!

  2. Richard Wong says:

    Awesome stuff Floris. This place looks interesting!

  3. Joey Priola says:

    Beautiful photos, Floris, and the background on the Moqui Marbles was very interesting. Love the “car camping” setup you’ve devised, I’ve been looking forward to when the lease on my Civic runs out so I can invest in something similar haha.

  4. Thanks! This our first trip with the awning and lights on the truck – it makes setting up camp in the dark and camping with the threat of rain so much more pleasant!

  5. Doug Haass says:

    I always look forward to and enjoy reading the posts that accompany your photos. I like your style of photography. Including yourselves in photos is a good way to tie the story all together, making it more of a personal endeavor.